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An Orange County fire crew charges north, giving aid to soggy Tulare County

A man in soiled clothes wincing as four rescuers, one knee-deep in mud, free him from quicksand with rope
Rescuers from Orange County use rope to free Donald Stinson from quicksand near the Tule River on Saturday. Stinson, a 52-year-old hospital cook, became trapped after saving his mother’s cat.
(Tomas Ovalle / For The Times)
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The hard part should have been over. The Loftis family home had barely escaped the fierce floodwaters of the Tule River, which laid waste to many others early Friday morning in this Sierra foothill community.

Saturday was supposed to be for mopping up, regrouping and taking a breath. But Sherry and Ed Loftis’ son spotted one of the family’s six cats stranded atop a flatbed truck that had become an island on the remade banks of the Tule.

Donald Stinson, 52, went to save the stranded cat, only to quickly need rescuing himself, as quicksand along the river quickly sucked him down. The big man in the Dodgers camo cap soon had his legs locked in ooze — as two neighbor women went running for help.

Good fortune (and a plan drawn by Tulare County’s Fire Department) had delivered a swift water rescue team from the Orange County Fire Authority to the scene just minutes earlier. Before Stinson could sink farther, a half dozen firefighters threw him a lifeline, built a makeshift platform and began digging the successful cat rescuer out of a sucking pit he wasn’t at all sure he would escape.

A Swift Water Rescue Teamaids Kirsten Franks, MyKenzie Franks and Tracie franks from their flooded Exeter property.
A Swift Water Rescue Team from the State Office of Emergency Services and a team from Orange County remove Kirsten Franks, MyKenzie Franks and Tracie Franks from their flooded Exeter property.
(Tomas Ovalle / For The Times)
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Soaked, sweating fiercely and a bit embarrassed by all the attention, Stinson thanked firefighter Jason Trevino, Capt. Chris Stevens and the others who delivered him back to solid ground.

“I am just thankful they were here,” said Stinson, a cook for a hospital. “It was looking pretty dim. Fifty-two, and you die right there, on your own property? That’s pretty sad. This gives a whole new meaning to life right now.”

The save by the 17-man Orange County crew epitomized the work being done all over California by rescue squads deployed by the state Office of Emergency Services. They completed at least 100 rescues late this week, amid the latest storm of the state’s wettest winter in recent memory.

In Monterey County, a group of firefighters had to rescue some of their own Saturday after their boat capsized on the Pajaro River, a state Office of Emergency Services official said.

The Swift Water Rescue Team from Orange County pulls their Zodiac from a flooded area after rescuing a
The Swift Water Rescue Team from Orange County pull their Zodiac from a flooded area after rescuing a family from their inundated property.
(Tomas Ovalle / For The Times)

The Orange County group headed north Thursday, bringing a Zodiac-style boat and enough gear for two weeks on their own. They started their work around Merced, then shifted south Friday and Saturday to Tulare County, where they plucked two stranded 90-somethings from a home in Cutler, evacuated an Exeter family of four (along with their ungrateful English bulldog), before extracting Stinson from the Tule River goo.

The Southern California squad expected to be deployed at least until Monday and for as long as two weeks — a timeline driven in part by Orange County’s own emergency operations guidelines.

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After two nights in hotels, the O.C. firefighters drew a 24-hour shift Saturday and expected to camp overnight so that they could remain closer to the Tule and other spots that remained in danger from a new weather front and the rapid snowmelt the warm rain was likely to unleash.

Uncertainty and changing circumstances are the rule for swift water rescue teams. The Orange County group’s previous assignments have taken them anywhere from plucking guests stranded atop rides at Knott’s Berry Farm to mountainside where injured hikers were stranded after life-threatening falls.

On day one this week, they helped evacuate a farmworker community, using their boat to reunite two nonagenarians trapped by the floodwaters with their families. Saturday morning, the boat delivered the Franks family and their three dogs — including one growling bulldog — from a home surrounded by water.

The Tulare river rages through Springville and washed away the foundation of this home. A Swift Water
The Tulare River raged through Springville and washed away the foundation of this home.
(Tomas Ovalle / For The Times)

With the sun shining for much of the day Saturday, their Tulare County hosts directed the O.C. group to double check on homes in Springville, where the Tule River flowed directly into multiple homes Friday morning.

William Woodmansee, a retired teacher, walked through two rental houses he owns along the river that had been ruined by water so powerful it tossed around large boulders like they were made of Styrofoam. A neighbor said the bone-chilling echo of the rocks slamming together sounded “like two semi trucks colliding.”

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Bill Woodmansee tears up as he describes the damage to his home and rentals he owns. Woodmansee didn't have flood insurance.
Bill Woodmansee tears up as he describes the damage to his home and the rentals he owns. Woodmansee didn’t have flood insurance.
(Tomas Ovalle / For The Times)

The 70-something Woodmansee said his own home upriver had been spared, but the two others he maintains as income properties would be difficult to repair. Flood insurance had been so high, he and his wife had decided to go without. Uncertain how he would rebuild, the retiree said his worries pale in comparison with the burden on others, including one of his tenants — a mother working three jobs — who did not know where she would move.

Water and mud in a flooded home.
(Tomas Ovalle / For The Times)

A tearful Woodmansee nodded toward the Orange County crew — led by battalion chiefs Brett Buffington and Jason Sultzer — saying the mere presence of the uniformed crews gave some solace.

“We’ve been evacuated twice in the last four years for fires. Hundreds of homes burned in the last one,” he said. “These first responders come from everywhere, and they are just critical to us up here.”

After confirming no one had been stranded near downtown Springville, one of the O.C. squads ventured to the other side of the river. While they were checking a washed out bridge on Globe Drive, two women came running, yelling “Help!”

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They pointed firefighter Trevino, Stevens and their comrades behind some bushes, where Stinson, a cook for Sierra View District Hospital, was up to his armpits in muck. The water and mud effectively created a vacuum.

As Stinson’s anxiety appeared to be spiraling, Trevino — looking at his cap — zinged him: “Dodgers, are you kidding me?” That may have cut the tension, as Stevens added: “Half an hour at most and we will have you out of here. You’ll be having a cold beer. And a warm shower.”

With their Tulare County brethren assisting, the southerners built a platform and dug around Stinson to give him room to maneuver. With a rope looped under his armpits, the firefighters pulled him free.

Don Stinson thanks firefighter Jason Trevino for pulling him from deep mud as Battalion Chief Jason Sultzer looks on
Don Stinson thanks firefighter Jason Trevino for pulling him from deep mud as Battalion Chief Jason Sultzer looks on.
(Tomas Ovalle / For The Times)

Looking sheepish, Stinson said: “Truly, it’s an honor to have them help me out like that.”

They had potentially a long night, and perhaps another week-plus in the field ahead of them, but the O.C. firefighters seemed satisfied.

“When it comes to the work, they knew what to do and we know their abilities,” Buffington said. “And the job gets done.”

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